Harm Reduction Ohio lawsuit halts secret meetings

OneOhio ignored judge’s ruling, leading to direct order to comply with law

 

Head table: (Seated, from left) Ashtabula County Commissioner Kathryn Whittington, OneOhio Interim Executive Director; Larry Kidd, OneOhio Chair; Andy Ferris, OneOhio attorney. Walking: Jim Quinn, OneOhio Chief Financial Officer.

Big news: The OneOhio opioid settlement board, after fighting for a year to operate in secret, finally complied with Ohio open meetings law on Wednesday. The opioid settlement board followed the law only after a judge issued a temporary restraining order on April 25 forcing OneOhio to comply. OneOhio had ignored a judge’s earlier ruling that it was covered by the Ohio Open Meetings Act.

The OneOhio board oversees 55% of Ohio’s $1 billion opioid settlement, to be paid over 18 years. OneOhio has held more than 30 meetings in violation of the Ohio Open Meetings Act since being formed May 16, 2022.

Harm Reduction Ohio successfully sued OneOhio, arguing that state law and Section 12 of the opioid settlement agreement required the board to follow open meetings law. OneOhio claimed it was exempt because, even though the board consists of government officials spending public funds, OneOhio hoped to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit.

On March 9, 2023, Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Mark Serrott ruled against OneOhio. He determined that OneOhio was a public body covered by the Ohio Open Meetings Act and would be covered, by law and the terms of the agreement, even if it did someday obtain 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service. OneOhio ignored the judge’s ruling.

On April 17, 2023, Harm Reduction Ohio asked for a temporary restraining order to force OneOhio’s immediate compliance with open meetings law. After an April 25, 2023, hearing, Judge Serrott issued a temporary restraining order against OneOhio, forcing it to end illegal meetings.

In response, OneOhio cancelled several scheduled committee meetings that were to be held in secret. What OneOhio would do next was unknown. Then, on Wednesday, after a year of claiming the right to act in secret, OneOhio held its first ever legal public meeting — and not just one, but two meetings on the same day!

Let the sun shine in!

The OneOhio opioid settlement board prepares to meet

OneOhio’s first act of compliance was a full board meeting held at the Ohio Chamber of Commerce building, across the street from the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. Immediately following this meeting, OneOhio’s Grant Oversight Committee met — and the public wasn’t kicked out! A historic moment for an organization that has wasted tens of thousands of dollars of settlement money in a quixotic quest to let government officials spend hundreds of millions of dollars free from public scrutiny.

The OneOhio board also allowed only in-person board members vote. Harm Reduction Ohio has no problem with virtual voting, but the legislature forbids it, so, to follow the law, only board members attending in person can vote.

The grant committee meeting that followed was more important than the full board meeting. OneOhio created a committee structure to streamline decision-making and keep the public out of the loop. Committees make the key decisions, which are then approved with little discussion in pro forma voice votes at full board meetings.

Do you wanna know a secret (committee meeting)? 

OneOhio has held at least 23 secret committee meetings since September 2022. The public has been excluded from every one. The most important committee — a small Executive Committee that makes most key decisions — has been a complete black hole hidden from public scrutiny: no agendas, meeting dates, minutes, decisions made, etc. provided. Although Executive Committee is a mystery to the public, board members often refer to decisions the Executive Committee has made on hiring, spending, policies, etc.

Secret club no longer: the OneOhio Grant Oversight Committee let the public into a meeting

The Grant Oversight Committee is an important committee, too.  Today was the first time the public has been able to witness it — or any committee — working on the opioid settlement. At the meeting (its seventh, the first open to the public), the Grant committee discussed things such as grant management software and schedules for making grants.

Harm Reduction Ohio President Dennis Cauchon praised OneOhio for following the law, even though it required two court rulings for get reluctant compliance.

“It was important for the public to finally get access to a OneOhio committee meeting. There weren’t riots, hurricanes or tornadoes. I hope the board realizes the sky doesn’t fall when meetings are public. OneOhio will be the big beneficiary of from losing the lawsuit. It will find that meeting in the open improve decision-making and credibility,” Cauchon said.

A separate public records lawsuit against OneOhio is pending before the Ohio Supreme Court. In addition to its false claim to have the right to meet secretly, OneOhio also claims it doesn’t have to reveal how money is spent. It says the board can be trusted to “voluntarily” tell the public everything the public should know. Harm Reduction Ohio argues that the Ohio Public Records Act — not OneOhio’s board and staff — legally determines what the public has a right to know. (Note: The Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Harm Reduction Ohio’s favor on May 11, 2023. OneOhio must comply with Ohio’s public records law.)

In a measure of the cynicism of OneOhio’s argument, remember that both courts said state law required the board follow Ohio Sunshine Laws, no matter what the settlement agreement said. The settlement agreement, though, was not silent on the issue. It requires OneOhio comply with  open meetings and public records law. OneOhio brazenly ignored the plain language of the agreement, just as it ignored Judge Serrott’s original decision. 

The settlement language that OneOhio pretended did not exist.

 

 

 

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